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Robogrunt: the US military's plans for robot armies

And enhancing the performance of real grunts...

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The US military's current armoury of unmanned spyplanes and weapons is to be vastly expanded through the addition of armies of robot soldiers, replacing and/or supplementing the real grunts, reports Billings Gazette.

Ultimately, the vision is that the grunts themselves become geeks, or perhaps more likely, are transformed into callcentre grunts, sitting in a control room coordinating multiple fighting, scouting and UN peace-keeping (wonder if they're doing these?) robots.

Billings refers to a US National Academy of Sciences report which defines four classes of robot: Searcher, which does reconnaissance; Donkey, which humps stuff (no, not like that); Wingman, which seems to be some kind of remote-controlled light tank; and Hunter-Killer, a platoon of ten unmanned vehicles which themselves contain up to five small observation vehicles apiece. Hunter-Killer's ability to strike deep into enemy territory, no matter how dangerous, should allow the US military to dispense entirely with Europeans, except maybe for sweeping up afterwards.

We should stress that the Billings report does not say that last bit.

The whole concept does however have resonance to anyone who's read DARPA's recently-published Strategic Plan. We hope to have time to bring you more on this amazing document shortly, but for now the particularly relevant section is 3.3. Networked Manned and Unmanned Systems.

DARPA has a vision "of filling the battlespace with unmanned systems that are networked with manned systems. The idea is not simply to replace people with machines, but to team people with robots to create more capable, agile, and cost-effective force that lowers the risk of US casualties." FCS, Future Combat Systems, is a major part of this.

FCS "will be a networked system-of-systems that includes manned and unmanned ground vehicles, along with various unmanned air vehicles. The goal is to develop Units of Action that have the lethality and survivability of an M1-based heavy force, but with the agility of today's light forces. FCS brigades will be able to deploy anywhere in the world within 96 hours."

Callcentre grunts controlling this little lot should not however kid themselves that they're entirely safe. We refer them to 3.7. Bio-Revolution.

"This thrust is a comprehensive effort to harness the insights and power of biology to make US warfighters and their equipment stronger, safer, and more effective... DARPA is mining these new discoveries for concepts and applications that could enhance US national security in revolutionary ways... DARPA's programs to thwart the threat of biological attack have brought significant biological expertise into the Agency. This created an impetus and a capability to begin a major exploration of the national security potential of cutting-edge research in the life sciences."

Had you noticed, by the way, where the results of the smallpox research grid project are going? Quite. But DARPA has bigger seafood to fry. "Enhanced System Performance refers to creating new systems with the autonomy and adaptability of living things by developing materials, processes, and devices inspred by living systems. For example, DARPA-sponsored researchers are studying how geckos climb walls and how an octopus hides to find new approaches to locomotion and highly adaptive camouflage.... Enhanced Human Performance is aimed at preventing humans from becoming the weakest link in the US military. The goal is to exploit the life sciences to make the individual warfighter stronger, more alert, more endurant, and better able to heal."

Still with us, callcentre grunts? It's starting to sound a little ominous, isn't it? It gets worse. "Perhaps the program that best exemplifies the 'revolution in Bio-Revolution is the Brain Machine Interface program. This program is finding ways to detect and directly decode signals in the brain so that thought can be turned into acts performed by a machine... imagine US warfighters that only need use the power of their thoughts to do things at great distances." No, we can't either.

Much else of wonder and amazement, including space warfare and a military PDA, in the full report. But it's too good to rush, so we'll get back to it. ®

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